Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Northeast Ohio Cities Spend COVID Aid on Surveillance Cameras

Four cities in the region have proposed using millions of pandemic relief funds for surveillance cameras to aid law enforcement and increase public safety. But there are concerns about the privacy risks.

(TNS) — Several Northeast Ohio cities are spending millions of COVID-19 stimulus dollars to purchase surveillance cameras for law enforcement.

Those who support the increased surveillance say they are an invaluable tool, helping to deter and solve crimes. Critics, however, say more police surveillance further erodes civil rights and is a step in the wrong direction for police-community relations.

State and local governments throughout the United States received $350 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act, often abbreviated ARPA, to recover from the fiscal impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of that money has been used on relatively non-controversial projects, such as improving sewer systems or removing lead pipes, but other expenses have drawn controversy.

In Northeast Ohio alone, Cleveland, Akron, North Olmsted and Canton have moved to increase police surveillance using ARPA money, reigniting the modern world’s perennial debate over balancing civil rights and public safety — and whether the advanced technology that promises to protect us is as effective as advertised.

Who Is Doing It?

The city of Cleveland approved spending roughly $4.5 million upgrading its surveillance network in late November 2021.

The cameras, part of the city’s Safe Smart CLE initiative, will be placed in “recreation centers, parks, neighborhoods, business districts, waterways, bridges and major thoroughfares,” according to the project’s request for proposals.

The document later asks potential vendors for their plans to place cameras in “hot spots.”

The proposal calls for surveillance cameras that can record in 1080p and that have an optical zoom of 32x. For comparison, an iPhone 13 has an optical zoom of 3x, according to cnet.

Cleveland City Council unanimously approved the ARPA allocations, which also included funding for affordable housing, police vehicles, upgrading fire stations and additional EMS equipment.

The City of Akron is considering a two-pronged surveillance plan that would add police cameras on streets and busy areas and provide personal doorbell cameras for people and businesses using ARPA money.

While the cameras are ARPA-funded, city officials have been working for over a year on a way to pay for more surveillance cameras for law enforcement, Akron Mayor Daniel Horrigan told

An earlier version of the plan, which is being aided by consultant group Guidehouse, called for 50 police surveillance cameras and between 3,000 and 5,000 personal doorbell cameras, similar to the Ring doorbell, to help police solve crimes in “high crime neighborhoods.”

But Horrigan said in an interview the cameras should be placed throughout Akron.

“I’m of the notion that we should deploy them all over the city. Crime doesn’t know one area,” Horrigan said.

Initially, the city plans to install 310 doorbell-type cameras and 130 license plate readers, Akron spokeswoman Stephanie Marsh said in an email.

In an interview, Horrigan said the city is still figuring out the logistics of the doorbell cameras, including how many to buy and whether the city or the recipients will own the cameras.

Doorbell cameras, such as Ring, allow the owner of the camera to view a live feed. While the decision is not final, Horrigan is leaning toward the city not owning the cameras it distributes to residents.

“I don’t think the city needs to own those. I think it’s something we can provide to homeowners or businesses in and around the city, not necessarily just in high crime areas,” Horrigan said.

Asked if police could theoretically watch live feeds of city-owned cameras on private property, Horrigan said he didn’t support that. Plus, the police department doesn’t have enough people to spend watching hundreds or thousands of doorbell cameras, Horrigan said.

“To me I don’t think that’s our role. We’re still working through it, but I don’t think that’s our role for us to give (cameras) to people and for us to watch them,” Horrigan said.

Horrigan said he thinks the city strikes “a pretty good balance” between protecting civil rights and ensuring public safety. He also said the data captured from the surveillance cameras will not be sold but used only for law enforcement purposes.

The City of Canton approved in February spending $315,835 for company Wi-Fiber to install 26 cameras and four license plate readers in the northeast, northwest and southeast parts of town, according to city documents.

North Olmsted isn’t planning to use ARPA money to add more cameras, but it is planning to spend $15,000 on an adjacent project. North Olmsted, like many cities, already has a program in place that lets home or business owners voluntarily tell police where their private surveillance cameras are located, so police can ask residents for access to the footage if they believe a crime has occurred, said Jennifer Scofield, North Olmsted’s safety director.

Scofield said the city allocated $15,000 in ARPA money to develop a mapping software for the registered cameras, so police can more quickly see which cameras are in the area of a suspected crime.

There are limits to the program, Scofield said. Police cannot watch a live feed from private surveillance cameras without the owner’s consent. If someone registered for the program wants to opt-out, they can do so at any time, Scofield said.

Do Cameras Make Cities Safer?

Beyond the price of the cameras, themselves, and the risk to civil rights if the program is abused, the social benefits of surveillance cameras are harder to measure.

Whether or not cameras deter crime is a tricky question with unclear answers, according to the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service, which examined multiple studies on the topic in 2016.

Some research has shown surveillance cameras, when combined with other crime deterrents such as lighting, can reduce property crime. On the other hand, a 2008 paper from the American Civil Liberties Union argued, “video surveillance has no statistically significant effect on crime rates.”

Gary Daniels, ACLU Ohio’s chief lobbyist, said it remains true that increased police surveillance does not have a statistically significant impact on violent crime rates, despite the ubiquity of surveillance systems and rapidly improving surveillance technology.

If adding public surveillance cameras were a deterrent to violent crimes and most property crime, one would expect to see a massive drop in crime, Daniels said.

“We’ve got a long enough history of surveillance in this country. We can say ‘what has this helped?’” Daniels said.

The causes of crime rates are complicated, and proponents of police surveillance say the real question is whether these cameras help solve crimes. While it’s common to see anecdotal evidence of a key photo or video cracking a case, researchers are divided on whether that’s the norm.

When it comes to doorbell cameras, an NBC News investigation found that in many areas where police had widely deployed them, doorbell camera footage hadn’t led to a single arrest – despite Ring’s promises that its technology would make neighborhoods safer by deterring and helping to solve crime. Other police departments were unsure if doorbell cameras ever led to an arrest, according to the report.

As for city surveillance cameras, a 2020 Urban Institute study found increased crime clearance rates in areas of Milwaukee with surveillance cameras.

However, with thousands of cameras installed throughout any city, a percentage of them are bound to be broken or malfunctioning. For example, although the city of Cleveland has a $225,000 maintenance contract for the city’s 1,500-plus cameras, about 3 percent of them “do not work,” Cleveland Director of Public Safety Karrie Howard said at a City Council Safety Committee hearing in April.

What’s more, many areas in Cleveland, particularly where council members had formally requested surveillance cameras, lack the necessary infrastructure to install them, said City Councilman Michael Polensek, who chairs the committee.

Daniels said police surveillance cameras – at least historically — haven’t statistically proven very effective in solving crimes, largely because the surveillance cameras on the street often don’t take videos that are high enough quality to use as evidence.

However, as technology continues its march forward, that may change.

“The technology is always going to get better. The technology is always going to get more invasive,” Daniels said.

Facial Recognition

A comprehensive network of surveillance cameras also raises the possibility of widespread use of facial recognition software – which is capable of mapping, analyzing and then identifying a face in a photo or video. At the April meeting, Cleveland safety officials said the city’s surveillance cameras could be programmed to use facial recognition software, but they refused to say whether the city is already using it.

Howard asked the city councilman to talk privately about the possibility of facial recognition software, to which Polensek agreed. has reached out to the Cleveland Division of Police on the topic.

But Daniels said that kind of closed-door discussion on such a controversial use of technology is typical.

“So much of it happens behind the scenes, and we’re just asked to trust the police and government to do what they’re telling us they’re doing, when their track record isn’t so good,” Daniels said.

Facial recognition also has a history of triggering more false positives for people with dark skin, according to Daniels and research compiled by Harvard University.

Considering the existing, racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system, “facial recognition doubles down on that,” Daniels said.

Critics of the technology warn that increasing surveillance could lead to a situation such as in China, where government surveillance and facial recognition is employed on a mass scale and used against minority groups.

However, America’s own use of facial recognition raises concerns among civil liberties advocates and the appropriateness of using such powerful tools for solving routine crimes. In one case, police in Oregon used surveillance cameras to prosecute a $12 shoplifing case, according to cnet.

More locally, Ohio has had its own facial recognition database for nearly a decade, comprised largely of driver’s license photos, that state and federal law enforcement have used to prosecute crimes, reported.

Civil Rights Concerns

While police and some city officials have cheered the addition of more surveillance cameras, the issue is far from clear-cut.

Gordon Friedman, a Cleveland defense attorney who serves on Cleveland’s Community Police Commission, questioned why ARPA funds were being used at all on police surveillance and said there needs to be strict rules governing how law enforcement uses surveillance.

“It’s a very useful crime detection tool, but to what extent do we give up our civil rights?” Friedman said.

The use of surveillance cameras, particularly in areas police deem to be “high crime,” also raises the question of whether predominantly minority neighborhoods will be more heavily surveilled.

On one hand, minority communities — particularly Black males — are more likely to be the victims of crime, according to studies from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the Prison Policy Initiative.

However, these same communities are less likely to trust police.

The fear that an American law enforcement agency would use a surveillance network to disproportionately monitor a racial, religious or ethnic minority group is informed by precedent.

In 2018, New York Police Department settled a lawsuit after illegally spying on mosques and Muslim groups. In 2020, the U.S. Marshals Service used drones to spy on Black Lives Matter protesters in Washington D.C., according to The Intercept. In 2020, San Francisco police were sued and accused of “commandeering” private security cameras to monitor Black Lives Matter protests, according to KQED.

One argument in favor of increasing surveillance is that a person who has nothing to hide should not be worried about others watching. Daniels rejects that.

“We should never get to the point where the burden is on Ohioans or Americans to say why they don’t feel they should be surveilled,” Daniels said.

The solution, Friedman says, is to create reasonable surveillance policies and a commission of cybersecurity experts, police, members of the community, civil liberties experts and others to review and approve them.

Daniels favors something similar, pointing to cities like Dayton and Yellow Springs that have codified a process for reviewing potential changes to police surveillance. But Daniels said that, in the past, financial constraints slowed the process of installing surveillance equipment long enough for meaningful conversations to take place about civil rights and the usefulness of surveillance. He worries that the influx of ARPA money will “short-circuit” that layer of scrutiny.

Friedman agrees.

“It’s a give and take situation. We want to be protected, but at what price?” he said, adding simply, “Read Orwell.”

©2022 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
From Our Partners